What happens when the covert goes semi-overt, and the overt goes semi-covert?
That's not one of those sadistic Sphinxian riddles designed to make children feel dim-witted -- It's one of the many unanswered questions created by recent seismic shifts in the national security landscape.
Particularly since 9/11, the lines between the military and the intelligence community have gotten fuzzy. The CIA has moved increasingly into paramilitary activities, while the military has moved increasingly into what look like covert intelligence activities. These trends are the result of natural (and largely praiseworthy) efforts by DoD and the intelligence community to respond to changing threats with creativity and agility -- but the end result is confusion and lack of accountability.
The covert goes (semi)-overt
Start with the intelligence community. After the CIA debacles of the '60s and '70s (Bay of Pigs, anyone? Poisoned cigar?), the intelligence community shifted away from lethal covert action. An executive order prohibited assassinations, and Congress tightened covert-action notification requirements. Yes, espionage remained a dangerous game, operating in a sort of legal twilight. But in the 1980s and '90s the intelligence community focused mainly on collection and analysis rather than on the covert use of force. The 9/11 Commission report concluded that prior to 9/11, many in the intelligence community in fact believed that using covert lethal force was prohibited.
After 9/11, this changed fast. CIA personnel were the first American government agents to enter Afghanistan, paving the way for Army Special Forces; in some cases, CIA personnel reportedly fought (and died) alongside Afghan Northern Alliance soldiers. CIA personnel also reportedly participated actively in the Battle of Tora Bora and Operation Anaconda, and in the years that followed, the CIA has substantially beefed up its paramilitary side, recruiting heavily within the military special operations community.
Today, the CIA is widely reported to engage in raids against high-value terrorist targets. In particular, the CIA is reportedly responsible for scores -- possibly hundreds -- of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. Collectively, CIA drone strikes are thought to have killed as many as several thousand people.
I keep using that weasely word "reportedly" because officially none of this is happening. Or, rather, although the government is happy enough to take credit for turning live terrorists into dead terrorists, the government officially insists, "Whether or not the CIA has the authority to be, or is in fact, directly involved in targeted lethal operations remains classified." What's more, "Notwithstanding widespread reports that drone strikes occur, the CIA has never confirmed or denied whether it has any involvement or intelligence interest in any of those drone strikes."
Still not clear enough for you? In response to recent Freedom of Information Act requests for records relating to drone strikes, the CIA was unambiguously ambiguous: "The CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of responsive records because the existence or nonexistence of any such records is a currently and properly classified fact that is exempt from release."
So is the CIA conducting lethal drone strikes, or not?
You be the judge. The investigative journalism group Pro Publica has compiled a detailed list of press reports in which anonymous senior officials have discussed those reported CIA drone strikes, together with seemingly confirmatory quotes from several guys who ought to know, including Secretary of Defense (and former CIA director) Leon Panetta and President Obama.
In 2009, for instance, then-CIA Director Panetta responded to a question about CIA drone strikes by saying, "These operations have been very effective.... I can assure you that in terms of that particular area, it is very precise, and it is very limited in terms of collateral damage, and, very frankly, it's the only game in town in terms of confronting and trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership." Hmmm.
Two years later, after taking over the helm at DoD, Panetta cheerfully told a military audience, "Having moved from the CIA to the Pentagon, obviously I have a hell of a lot more weapons available to me in this job than I had at the CIA, although the Predators weren't bad."
What happens when activities that are officially covert become so extensive and sustained that they essentially move into the overt world? Someone is using drones to go after Pakistani militants, and the U.S. military says it ain't them. After a decade of drone strikes and dead bodies, it gets harder and harder to insist that what the CIA is (reportedly!) doing is covert.